Friday 20 July 2012

Interview with Chris Tugwell

Chris Tugwell is an Adelaide-based screenwriter, playwright and author. He has written more than fifty scripts for film, stage, radio, television, documentary and multimedia. 
    Chris was a member of the National Executive of the Australian Writers' Guild from 1992 to 1996, a member of the South Australian Committee for sixteen years, and Chair of the SA Committee for ten years.
    He worked with Katrina Sedgwick to establish the Insite Unproduced Screenplay Competition for the Adelaide Film Festival. Chris was a member of the Board of the Australian Script Centre for six years. He was a founding member of the Australian Writers’ Guild Authorship Collecting Society (AWGACS), a Board member from 1995 to 2007, and Chair from 2004 to 2007. He was a member of the Board of the Australian Script Centre for six years.
    The man has been busy, but he made time to answer a few questions.

* Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in England and my family came to Adelaide when I was seven. Best thing we ever did.

*  Where did you go to school?

I went to private schools in Adelaide and then to Flinders University to study acting. When uni fees were removed by the Whitlam government it brought a flood of new people and really opened my eyes. At the time university was for privileged and rich private school kids (like me). We had always been told we were the best, but suddenly brilliant people from less wealthy families had this fantastic opportunity, and for the first time I had to work hard to keep up. This was a time of conscription, anti-war protest, aboriginal land rights, and women's liberation, all questions from which I had been sheltered.

Flinders University, in the afternoon sun.
*  What kind of a family did you grow up with?

My mother was an opera singer, my sister a dancer and circus performer, and I'm a writer and actor. My brother was a civil engineer. Where did we go wrong?

*  When did you first take an interest in storytelling?

I always thought writers were other people, clever people, not me. I only began writing when I started acting and worked with groups that put scripts together and then performed them. That seemed perfectly natural; not really "writing" at all.

*  What was your first paying job?

I had all sorts of part time jobs; delivery driver, road labourer, gardener, steel worker, clerk. My first full time job was as a high school English and Drama teacher in the steel town of Whyalla. That's also where I wrote my first play.

*  What was your first job in the writing business?

It doesn't work like that, I find. You have an idea, you write it. Someone might be interested, or you may get a few people together and put it on yourself. My first commissionwhere I got paid to write somethingwas for Patch Theatre (a children's theatre company in Adelaide). The play was about mail-order brides. By the time I'd finished it that director had left and the new one wasn't interested.

*  Who was the teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

Zora Semberova
There were two, both at Flinders Uni. One was Zora Semberova, a dance teacher and former prima ballerina from Moscow. In almost every lesson she would cry, "You are nothing, you are dilettante," to one or other of us. She was always right, we were taking the easy path, trying to get away with doing only as much as we had to. That always resulted in shallow work. The second was Yutaka Wada, my Japanese acting teacher at Flinders. When a student was late once, he listened to her excuses and then said to us all, "Death is the only excuse, death or fatal accident." No-one was ever late again. Both Madame Zora and Yutaka always expected us to give our best, and only accepted that.

*  Of all your writing projects over the years, which has been the most satisfying, and why?

The stage version of X Ray was an incredible experience. Not only did it get four productions, which is rare, but it was a piece that had a direct effect on the way people thought about an issue as it was unfolding. Also, having Major Michael Moriin full Marine uniformspeak to the audience on opening night, or seeing Terry Hicks sitting on the ground with local aboriginal leaders in Darwin, who also had family in prison, was incredibly moving. (For those who don't know, X Ray was about an Australian, David Hicks, who was held in Guantanamo Bay for seven years, and his dad's struggle to get justice.)

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp
*  You spent many years developing your screenplay, X Ray, only to have the plug pulled on you at the last minute. I know it was a devastating experience emotionally and professionally. What steps did you take to recover and renew your vision?

I had worked on this for seven years, and the response to the script had been consistently positive, but that wasn't enough. So for a long time afterwards I did not write. I completely lost my belief in any ability I had. 

The village of Urada, Tokamachi, Niigata
My partner makes felt. In 2010 she was chosen by the Australian Embassy to be artist-in-residence for three months at Australia House in a tiny village in the mountains of Japan. As it was so remote they insisted she take someone with her. I almost had to beat friends and family off with a stick to get to go. 
    We lived in a 150 year old farm house on the edge of the rice fields and the forest. Part of the deal was to write a blog of our experiences. That gave me the chance to write for a totally different audience, but mostly for myself. 

An article in the local Niigata Nippo newspaper.
    The Japanese attitude to artists is one of remarkable respect. A writer is a valued person, so it was immensely satisfying to write purely for funfor an audience ready and willing to listenabout the amazing place we found ourselves in and the challenges we faced. We have just put that blog into book form and that too has been rewarding and energising.

*  Australian filmmaking inevitably involves government funding agencies at some point. What have your experiences with them been like?

Highest highs and deepest despair. I have both been on the committees making the decisions and on the receiving end of decisions. I have found people are dedicated and professional and have the best intentions, but don't always make the best decisions. Good projects can miss out for want of a key element, or because a similar project somewhere else on the planet beats them to it. Bad projects can get up because of the timing or it's just what a network is looking for. 
    I have been in meetings where I felt convinced I knew which projects would get funded, and been wrong about every one. What has surprised me, though, is how even the best writers and producers can stuff up an application by not being clear about their vision. I must say that the SA Film Corporation has been incredibly supportive of a number of projects of mine. Even when the projects haven't always progressed, the SAFC's belief in me hasn't wavered. That means a lot.

*  You have just released a screenwriting book called Dinosaur Theory. Can you pitch the central idea of that book in a few lines?

As I say on the back cover, each and every great screen story has a natural and seamless shape that lies within the script; that shape might be a journey, an event, a time limit or a place. Dinosaur Theory shows you how to find that shape and use it to create your own powerful and unique screenplay. You can get the book from!

*  I’ve heard your next project involves African refugees in Australia. Are you free to tell us anything about that?

I rarely talk about a project as I work on it. What I can say is it involves men and cooking. In the past few weeks though, and totally out of the blue, I have been asked to write a big budget feature; which just shows you can never plan a career in writing. Things just come up.

*  You have taught screenwriting at the Adelaide College of the Arts. What one main idea do you try to impress on students?

What do we see?!

*  If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie screenwriter in Adelaide, which one would it be?

I find William Froug (Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade) to be the best of the 'Hollywood' bunch. Another book, one that asks writers themselves about how they work, is Top Secrets: Screenwriting, by Jurgen Wolff and Kerry Cox; and guess what, most of the writers quoted don't use three acts!

What are your ten favourite movies of all time?

This list changes all the time; but here goes. 
I'd also add any Buster Keaton silent movie. 

(Buster Keaton was arguably the greatest actor/director in movie history, and an inspiration to many comedians who followed, including—amongst many others—Jackie Chan. The following is a five minute clip which shows a few of Buster Keaton's finest moments. Thanks for giving me an excuse for showing this, Chris. Oh, and turn the sound up...)


Anonymous said...

Good interview!The Buster Keaton clip was great, loved the music.

Kathy said...

What a brave man Buster Keaton was! And he shows us all how human our sense of humour is.

Kathy said...

Thanks for the interview. An interview like this makes us feel as though we know so much more about a person, their history, and what drives them. And the pictures help. I went to Flinders Uni, too, Chris! (waving)